The Lost City of the Monkey God - A True Story - by Douglas Preston - Review

I thought it would be a very different sort of book, like adrenaline pulsing adventure story. The Lost City of the Monkey God - A True Story by Douglas Preston turned out to have more nuanced actions but more thoughtful observations about the archaeological exploration, Honduran politics, academic squabbling and the terrible parasite based disease called Lieshmaniasis, a disease that the millions of people in bottom rung of the economic ladder have to face without generating much interests from the big pharmaceutical companies as less money to be made from researching and developing vaccines and other medicines combating this "poor" world disease.

The author's exploration of the lost city in the La Mosquitia region of Honduras, along with archaeologists, film makers, photographers and military proctors, are well described, including the tremendous daily struggles that all of them had to go through. Historic accounts were given about the lost city, and earlier explorers, their efforts, some of them were outright fraudsters, corruptions in Honduran government, and despite all the initial setbacks, the steadfast efforts by some of the visionaries I found to be inspiring. 

The writer points out the heavy criticism that the exploration team faced when they returned from their first on foot expedition. The archaeological academic community, a part of it, was severely critical of this undertaking. The writer presented both sides of the arguments to give a balanced observation. Here are a few quotes: 

"The ultimate offense was the idea that Europeans “discovered” the New World to begin with, as if the people living here didn’t exist before Europeans saw them. Phrases like “lost cities” and “lost civilization” were uncomfortably associated with the archaeology of the past."
"While I agree with most of this argument and am delighted that modern archaeological vocabulary is increasingly nuanced and sensitive, it poses a challenge for those of us writing about archaeology for a lay audience, since it is nearly impossible to find work-arounds for common words like “lost” and “civilization” and “discovery” without tying the English language up into knots."
The critiques also look to be, at least some part of it, politically motivated, to protest against "the present Honduran government, an example of how the coup and its aftermath left the Honduran archaeological community angry and divided."

While commenting on historical events related to his exploration, Douglas Preston borrows some of the arguments that anthropologist Jared Diamond made in his famous book Collapse: 

"Skeletons speak with eloquence, and the many graves unearthed at Cop├ín show that after AD 650, the health and nutrition of the common people appeared to decline. This happened even as the ruling classes apparently swelled in size over succeeding generations, with each generation larger than the last—in what archaeologists call the “increasingly parasitic role of the elite.”  
We have to wonder why the kings and nobles failed to recognize and solve these seemingly obvious problems undermining their society. Their attention was evidently focused on their short-term concerns of enriching themselves, waging wars, erecting monuments, competing with each other, and extracting enough food from the peasants to support all those activities.\ 
...archaeology is thick with cautionary tales that speak directly to the twenty-first century.)"
Upon returning from his first on foot expedition, the writer Douglas Preston and others in the exploration team were seriously ill with a disease, Lieshmaniasis, it is caused by a parasite called Leismania. Detail historical and biological aspects of this frightening disease was described in the book. While getting treatment, Douglas Preston started exploring more on this disease that also struck chord with him, by comparing it with the sudden demise of people in the La Mosquitia region, T1, T2 and T3, one of the sites that he visited. He provides sombre comparisons on how and why the native populations in North, Central and South America declined so suddenly after the first European visits. No one to blame as it's a geographical disaster waiting a,d bidding its time and opportunity to happen. Here are some gloomy but poignant quotes from the writer:
"Over thousands of years and countless deaths, people in the Old World gradually built up a genetic resistance to many brutal epidemic diseases. Native Americans never had the opportunity to develop resistance to the myriad diseases that plagued Europeans. A staggering amount of suffering and death over thousands of years went into building European (and African and Asian) resistance to crowd diseases." 
About the devastating impact on the native people:
"A 90 percent mortality rate is high enough: It does not just kill people; it annihilates societies; it destroys languages, religions, histories, and cultures. It chokes off the transmission of knowledge from one generation to the next. The survivors are deprived of that vital human connection to their past; they are robbed of their stories, their music and dance, their spiritual practices and beliefs—they are stripped of their very identity..... It was the greatest catastrophe ever to befall the human species."
But it would happen, even if the Europeans could not arrive in the "New World:
"if Europeans hadn’t arrived in the New World, these deadly pandemics would not have happened. But the meeting of the Old World and the New was inevitable. If Europeans hadn’t carried disease to the New World, Asians or Africans would have; or New World mariners would have eventually reached the Old. No matter what, disaster would have ensued. This was a monstrous geographic accident waiting to happen. This was a time bomb that had been ticking for fifteen thousand years—counting down to that fateful moment when a ship with sick passengers finally set sail across the wide ocean." 
No civilization has survived for ever, mused the writer in his very last paragraph. He is right. Mighty civilization after civilization bit the dust, disappeared in the heap of forgotten history, "Sometimes, a society can see its end approaching from afar and still not be able to adapt, like the Maya; at other times, the curtain drops without warning and the show is over. No civilization has survived forever. All move toward dissolution, one after the other, like waves of the sea falling upon the shore. None, including ours, is exempt from the universal fate."

From scientific point of view, destiny or fate is unproven and non rational concept, but the world, the nature, our very existence is maintained by equilibrium in the natural world, that took many millions of years to evolve. Our species, Homo Sapiens, the Wise Man with brilliant minds are top of this world's food and intellectual chain, but still it looks the reversal of fortune is slowly progressing to balance out the past agonies, albeit signalling more miseries for unknown many who might be unaware like perhaps the disappeared people in the Lost City of the Monkey God" were in their time.


Douglas Preston's The Lost City of the Monkey God is well written and contains good and profound observations on human species and its progression. A good book to read.




Comments